Published April 1, 2023
The NBA Time Machine:
Six To Seven
The New Lew
Excitement defined the 1969 NBA draft with the incoming arrival of young basketball phenomenon Lew Alcindor. A skilled center that tore through leagues at the high school and college level, he was the most sought-after prospect since Wilt Chamberlain. From 1967-69, he won three consecutive NCAA championships with the UCLA Bruins and was undeniably considered the best talent in college basketball. The dunk was even banned at that level because of his dominance.
Once he completed his education, Alcindor was unsurprisingly bombarded with offers from teams everywhere. The most notable bidders were the Harlem Globetrotters, the ABA’s New York Nets, and whoever won the first pick in the NBA draft. That eventually became the Milwaukee Bucks, who won a coin toss with the Phoenix Suns for the opportunity.
Among the three, Milwaukee’s financial commitment appealed to Alcindor the most. It was four-hundred-thousand more dollars than what the Globetrotters offered, and towered above the Nets’ proposal as well. New York eventually tried to land Alcindor by guaranteeing over three million dollars, but he declined – the abrupt increase in money had an underlying tone of degradation, with Alcindor feeling like an object in a bidding war.
The Bucks improved substantially with their new rookie, improving by twenty-nine games and finishing second in the Eastern Division. Alcindor finished third in M.V.P. voting and assured a playoff berth in the franchise’s second season of existence.
The changing of decades also signified a new era in NBA history – over the off-season, Boston Celtics greats Bill Russell and Sam Jones both retired. Russell immediately stepped down as coach of the Celtics as well.
The two biggest backbones of the dynasty that ruled basketball for thirteen years were now both missing, making the chase for a title an open race. This had enormous implications for Eastern Division teams, as well as the Los Angeles Lakers, who had a disturbing 0-7 record against Boston in the Finals.
Down Goes the Dipper
After what was arguably the worst post-season of his career, Wilt Chamberlain had to make changes going into the next year. Brand new coach Joe Mullaney wanted him to be the focal point of L.A.’s offense, similarly to how he was utilized during his years with the Warriors. Chamberlain complied, averaging 32.2 points per game in his first nine games of the season on fifty-seven-percent shooting.
However, the four-time-M.V.P. sustained a tendon injury in the ninth match of the year that had career-ending potential. He was sidelined indefinitely, but surprisingly made a return for the last few games of the season. The rustiness was apparent, although the fact he bounced back from such a travesty was already impressive as is – there was a clear want to show commitment to Los Angeles.
In the meantime, the Lakers persevered – forty-six wins still orbited the team, something to thank Jerry West for. Forwards Elgin Baylor and Happy Hairston did their fair of heavy lifting, but also missed a good chunk of games. L.A.’s success despite so many injuries was remarkable.
Personnel matters were a mess this season, with eight of the fourteen NBA teams seeing some kind of coaching change. There was also a rise in player-coaches, with Bob Cousy (who came out of retirement), Lenny Wilkens, and Al Attles all suiting up at some point in the year.
Starting with this season, the league began to base statistical titles on “per game” production, as opposed to totals over the season.
To briefly break the fourth wall – this blog has always based its information on “per game” statistics, for the sake of continuity with later years.
Reed continued his superstar play with a slightly increased career high in scoring, locking up sixty wins for the first time in New York City. All eyes were on the center as he grabbed every accolade imaginable – the M.V.P., All-Star Game M.V.P., All-NBA First Team, and All-Defensive First Team.
Alcindor achieved arguably the greatest rookie season of all-time. He may have not grabbed an M.V.P. out of the gate like Wilt Chamberlain or Wes Unseld, but he took a young expansion franchise to fifty-six wins. It was not absurd to consider him the best talent in the NBA, despite his relative inexperience.
You would think a decade of superstar play would indicate an incoming decline for West, but he wanted no part of it. The point guard achieved his best season to date, seeing career highs in scoring and assists while lifting an injury-riddled Lakers team to the second seed.
While Reed deservingly got the media attention, Frazier was arguably just as important – if not more – to the Knicks’ success. This breakout campaign saw him amongst the top five scoring point guards, as well as a narrow second place on the Knicks. He became an elite and efficient playmaker as well, a development that made New York even more dangerous from all places.
Despite a disappointing playoff outing in the previous year, Unseld continued to show out. He led the Bullets through another fifty wins, while also improving massively on the offensive end.
Hawkins was a rare example of an ABA player favoring to play in the NBA, despite his sustained success in the rival league. The small forward became an instant star for Phoenix, finishing top ten in scoring average and blessing the young franchise with their first playoff berth.
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An asterisk (*) indicates that the team qualified for the playoffs.